Cars For College
"No, you don't need a car on campus at all!"
Virtually every college tour guide has said those very words, but despite what their admissions departments would like prospective students and their parents to believe, some campuses just aren't ideal without an automobile. Perhaps there's insufficient public transportation, inconvenient off-campus housing or faraway nightlife. Maybe you need to drive to work, or you simply want to be able to drive home for the weekend. There are a lot of reasons why having your own wheels at school makes sense. Even if it's not strictly necessary, we certainly can't imagine our four years without them.
As such, we've compiled a list of the 11 best used cars for college students. You will note that we left out sensible used car choices like the Honda Civic, Toyota RAV4 or Ford Fusion. Why? Because they're generic enough to appeal to anyone. Our focus here is on what matters to today's students. Key attributes include low cost of ownership, modern electronic features, good crash ratings, distinctive style and a versatile cargo area to fill up with dorm contents, a bicycle, a keg, frat pledges or what have you. In order of the lowest to highest starting price, here are our top picks.
Mazda 3 (2004-'09): Price Range: $4,000-$15,000
The first-generation Mazda 3 was the top-rated compact car when new. Its mix of sharp styling, sharper driving dynamics, above-average cabin quality and a versatile available hatchback body style made it stand out. Abundant features, including optional luxury items like heated leather seats and xenon headlights, were icing on the cake. Years later, its appeal in comparison to similarly aged peers has not waned, and we now know that it has enjoyed better-than-average reliability.
Although the succeeding generation shared many of these elements, the competition was starting to catch up by then. On top of that, prices for the first generation should make it appealing for used car shoppers looking to spend less than $10,000 for something highly desirable.
Honda CR-V (2002-'06): Price Range: $4,900-$13,000
Every Honda CR-V has been versatile, reliable and efficient, but we call out this generation for two reasons. The first is price. CR-Vs hold their value extremely well: Even 10-year-old models can top $10,000 if well maintained. The second reason can be found in the cargo area, or rather, underneath it: The cargo floor doubles as a picnic table. Just pull it out, fold out the legs and voilá! Better still, the bin underneath the floor/table is watertight, drainable and therefore doubles as a cooler. Saturday mornings in the stadium parking lot will never be the same again.
You may want to bring portable speakers, though, since this CR-V doesn't provide a media player connection. You'll need to get an aftermarket solution or a cassette deck adapter. But for a college student who wants the space, elevated ride height and available all-wheel-drive traction of an SUV, this generation is an excellent choice.
Scion tC (2005-'10): Price Range: $5,000-$15,000
"A coupe? That's not very practical for a college student!" Well, the Scion tC defies that conventional wisdom. Sure, it only has two doors, but this dependable coupe from Toyota's Scion division also has a surprisingly spacious and versatile hatchback cargo area. Moreover, its unusually long wheelbase grants it an impressive amount of legroom in the backseat, which, incidentally, reclines for added comfort for friends.
Although the second-generation tC received some upgrades, we've selected the original version (2005-'10) because of its lower price point. One of the nice things about shopping for a used tC of this vintage is that Scion essentially offered just two factory options: transmission and color choice. As such, those will be the only major differences between tC models of the same year apart from the usual factors of mileage, condition and modifications (beware of those). Even year-to-year changes were restricted to minor standard feature content increases — notably the auxiliary audio jack made standard for '08.
Ford Mustang (2005-'09): Price Range: $7,000-$30,000
The other cars on this list are sensible ones that'll meet your college needs. But let's face it: You're young, you want to have some fun, and waxing poetic about a car's many sensible attributes only goes so far. For those of you wanting a cool car for college that won't break the bank, here's something classic and all-American: the Ford Mustang.
This particular Mustang was admittedly known for its chintzy interior and sluggish, inefficient V6 base engine, flaws that Ford rectified for 2010 and 2011, respectively. However, it still delivers iconic style, rear-wheel-drive fun and abundant performance with the V8. There are also plenty of Mustangs available for less than $10,000, and, if we can be sensible for a moment, it has a fairly usable backseat and trunk, and has enjoyed excellent reliability.
Toyota Prius (2006-'09): Price Range: $7,000-$15,000
This Toyota Prius generation flaunts an astounding EPA-estimated 46 mpg combined and a certain degree of "green cred" that should make you popular among the more eco-minded members of the student body. Just as notable, however, is the spacious hatchback cabin that's big enough to lug around four friends — or the contents of your dorm at year's end.
The Prius also enjoys a sterling reliability reputation, but know that its battery pack will need to be replaced someday. It came with an eight-year/100,000-mile warranty when new, and many of the packs have been known to last twice as long, but an out-of-warranty replacement does cost about $2,500. You could also consider the pricier succeeding generation (2010-'15), which boasts the same positive attributes along with even better fuel economy, more features and a less unusual interior design.
Kia Soul (2010-'13): Price Range: $8,000-$17,000
The Kia Soul has virtually every element we think is important for today's college students. The Soul's distinctive styling inside and out will help it stand out in parking lots filled with silver Corollas and Civics. Plus, even the most basic version includes satellite radio and USB/auxiliary audio inputs for your smartphone (although we recommend an upper trim that will include four-wheel disc brakes, alloy wheels, keyless entry and Bluetooth, among other desirable features).
Reliability has been above average, Kia's lengthy powertrain warranty will still have some years on it and interior space is excellent, given the car's small footprint. Fuel economy is just OK, however, and it's important to note that Kia had to downgrade the efficiency estimates of the more powerful 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine introduced for 2012.
Note that if you can pay a bit more, the second-generation Soul introduced for 2014 is an even stronger choice.
Honda Fit (2009-'13): Price Range: $8,500-$18,000
There is no other car on the market that manages to get as much interior space out of tiny exterior dimensions as the Honda Fit. In fact, when you fold down its rear seat, it actually boasts more maximum cargo capacity than our other choice, the Hyundai Tucson. The secret is its so-called "Magic Seat," which folds completely flat and low into the floor, increasing space for dorm moves or even making it possible to sleep off a night of excessive drin... uh, studying. The backseat's bottom cushion also uniquely flips up to create a tall, narrow storage area behind the front seatbacks.
Beyond its versatility, the Fit provides thrifty fuel economy, easily maneuverable small-car driving dynamics, simple controls and practically bulletproof reliability. Repair, maintenance and depreciation costs will actually be a bit higher than those for its top rival, the Ford Fiesta, but we think the Fit's other attributes make it the used subcompact car to get for college students.
Hyundai Tucson (2010-'15): Price Range: $11,000-$26,000
For those hoping for an SUV, college student used car shoppers should consider the second-generation Hyundai Tucson. It provides the elevated ride height, available traction and extra cargo space desired in a compact SUV, but offers far more style inside and out than utilitarian competitors like a Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4, while typically including more features. All Tucsons came with an iPod interface, and most specimens on dealer lots will include alloy wheels, Bluetooth phone and a leather-wrapped wheel. Niceties like a rearview camera and heated leather seats were optional as well.
This Hyundai is also bound to save you some money. Not only will it be cheaper to purchase than a CR-V of equal age and mileage, but its other ownership costs will be lower as well. The Tucson's solid reliability certainly has something to do with that.
Toyota FJ Cruiser (2007-'11): Price Range: $11,500-$28,000
There aren't many SUVs out there that are equal parts capable, cool and dependable. A Toyota 4Runner is capable and dependable, but not so cool. The Jeep Wrangler is capable and cool, but repairs can be frequent and costly. Combining the best of those two rough-and-ready SUVs is the Toyota FJ Cruiser, a very cool used car for college students who intend to venture off campus to the great outdoors and look good doing it. Its reliability, rugged off-road ability, punchy performance and sizable cabin are all strong points.
The nice thing about the FJ Cruiser is that it changed very little during its production run, meaning that condition, mileage and remaining warranty (if any) should be the major differences between individual vehicles. Notable exceptions would be a power increase for 2010 and the availability of a highly recommended rearview camera starting in 2008 (side and rear visibility borders on poor). Note that fuel economy is unimpressive, and that although the FJ Cruiser was sold beyond the years we've indicated, we assume those later models will exceed the budgets of the typical college student.
Subaru Impreza (2012-'15): Price Range: $12,900-$26,000
For those who will be facing months of cold, snowy weather at college, getting a car with all-wheel drive is often a high priority. Unfortunately, cars so equipped are typically thirstier and pricier than the norm. But there is one exception: the Subaru Impreza sedan and hatchback.
Now, you can definitely consider previous (and cheaper) Impreza models that also featured standard all-wheel drive, top crash scores and solid reliability. However, these years (2012-'15) represent the greatly improved current-generation model that boasts more up-to-date features, a bigger and higher-quality cabin, and much better fuel economy that makes it one of the most efficient all-wheel-drive cars.
Given the choice, we'd recommend getting the more versatile hatchback. Note that the related Subaru XV Crosstrek is virtually identical to the Impreza, apart from its more rugged styling and extra ground clearance.